The Virgin Mary attained cult status in the earliest centuries of the fledgling Christian church. And despite a concerted effort begun by the Vatican 40 years ago to de-emphasize her, the mother of Jesus remains a powerful, albeit polarizing, force within the Catholic Church.
The church's liberal wing claims the Mary cult is an unnecessary anachronism. Others—mainly conservative Catholics—argue that Mary is as popular as ever and want her reinstated as the Queen of Heaven.
Catholicism's internecine debate over Mary's status is nothing new, says Michael P. Carroll, author of The Cult of the Virgin Mary. "Devotion to Mary in the western church has gone through a number of cycles," he says. Mariology is linked to Mary's important role within the church at its inception, according to Sarah Jane Boss, director of the Center for Marian Studies at the University of Wales-Lampeter. A prayer to Mary, written in Greek on papyrus and found in Egypt, addresses her as the Mother of God, and it dates to sometime between the third and fifth centuries.
But why did the early church feel a need to elevate Mary to a position of worship? Perhaps to help spread Christianity. "Ancient people needed a feminine figure in their worship," Boss says. "They were used to having goddesses." Moreover, virgin births of gods figured prominently in many ancient myths. And pioneering Christians often piggybacked on paganism to speed conversion. They built churches where pagan temples once stood and often proclaimed holy days that coincided with past pagan celebrations.
Go-to saint. Marian devotion went into overdrive in the Roman west in 431, after the Council of Ephesus agreed that Mary should be called Theotokos (Mother of God) rather than Christotokos (Mother of Christ). The Theotokos label also implied Jesus's divinity. To be sure, there were dissenters who considered the title blasphemous. Nestorius, an early leader of the church in Constantinople, protested that God has always been, so he couldn't have a human mother. In the 11th century, the scholar St. Bernard of Clairvaux gave the cult further momentum when he preached a more emotional, personal faith in which Mary was the prime intercessor.
In her book Empress and Handmaid, Boss notes that the earliest likenesses of Mary portrayed a stern, all-powerful queen. By the end of the 12th century, however, her image softened. Mary became more of a moral figure, humbler and more approachable, the go-to saint for the troubled. "She was someone you could chat to," Boss says. Although the church has always officially portrayed Mary as an intermediary with no supernatural powers of her own, that's not been the case at a grass-roots level, Carroll says. In many countries, such as Italy, different Madonnas are seen not as representations of the same person but as individual beings, each with their own special powers.
Veneration of Mary takes many forms, among them special prayers—including the Hail Mary—shrines, relics, and statues. Many individual clerics pushed devotion to Mary by founding Marian societies, especially during the so-called counterreformation, when the Roman church reacted to the Protestant movement. Mariology got another boost in the 19th century as part of an effort by the Vatican to standardize Catholic practices. In 1854, Mary's Immaculate Conception became church dogma. In large part, Carroll says, the 19th-century church was again reacting to external pressures. Its authority was under assault by popular movements, modernist thought, and various governments.